Written by Matt Bowes
Looking back at the films I’ve talked about at the pulp over the last year, I think the thread that connects all of them (okay, maybe not Doomsday and Punisher: War Zone) is that they are unabashedly unafraid of depicting human sentiment. While I don’t disagree that a lot of these movies could be called “sentimental” in the critical sense of the word, I don’t think that the filmmakers are using this as a cheap trick to toy with audience emotions; in John Carter and Dune, for example, broad sentiment is useful to quickly centre the viewer in worlds very different from our own, while in movies where the visual style is much more heightened than most Hollywood product, like Speed Racer and Watchmen, easily understood emotional arcs for the characters serve to not undercut the visual storytelling.
Darren Aronofsky, director of The Fountain, might be a lot of things, but a subtle portrayer of human interaction probably isn’t one of them. Like the Wachowski siblings and Zack Snyder, he is a filmmaker whose style is immediately apparent: spinning camera moves and Dutch angles, the use of slow and fast motion, droning background sounds, and drug themes. He often works with composer Clint Mansell to craft layered soundscapes that threaten to overtake the action onscreen (chances are, even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve heard “Lux Aeterna” from the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack—it’s been a favourite of trailer makers since its creation because of its “epic” feel).
As much as I enjoyed his latest film Noah—the lackluster popularity of which seems to have suffered from the unique condition of the content being too Christian for some viewers and yet not Christian enough for others—The Fountain is probably my favourite Aronofsky film. Unjustly savaged by critics at the time, The Fountain is at once a feast for the eyes and an uplifting, albeit deeply strange, story.
The high concept here is a doomed love story simultaneously occurring in three separate timelines: in the earliest, brave conquistador Tomas is beseeched by Queen Isabella of Spain to seek out a Mayan temple that supposedly contains the secret of immortality. The modern-day iteration of the duo finds Tom, a brilliant neuroscientist, working around the clock to try and cure the brain condition that ails his wife, Izzi. Finally, in the presumably far future, Tommy, a tai chi-practicing space explorer, travels to the distant Xibalba nebula, home of the Mayan afterworld, in a biosphere bubble alongside a life-giving tree and the ghosts of the past.
There’s quite a bit going on here, especially considering the metatextual aspect of the film where all of these stories can also found in the book Izzi is writing, which she passes on to Tom to finish in the event of her death, but the story is not at all confusing in the end. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, both of whom anchor the viewer in the increasingly preposterous things happening on screen, play the doomed lovers in each time period. I think I prefer Weisz best as Queen Isabella, but she does a great job throughout the film as an unflagging optimist. Jackman shows his great action chops as a conquistador, and is especially compelling and weird as the space traveller Tommy, stuck in a co-dependent relationship with a tree co-pilot.
The multiple settings of the film are unique, to say the least. Each has its own merits: Spain and the New World in this era have been very much underserved by Hollywood compared to their dramatic potential, and Aronofsky gets a lot of use out of Inquisition horrors, Isabella’s court and its gate between royalty and commoner, and the Mayan temples Tomas seeks to plunder. If I had one criticism to level, the portrayal of the inhabitants of the New World is perhaps a bit regressive, so don’t go here if you’re looking to see what it was really like in the Mayan era. It is couched in the style of adventure fiction, in the style of an Indiana Jones.
Aronofsky’s trademark visual style and sumptuous sets make the modern-day medical stuff very appealing to the eyes. He uses an interesting colour palette of lights in this sequence, with greens, yellows, and deep blacks that don’t really recall any other medical dramas. The house that Tom and Izzi share is beautifully decorated and lit, with a standout being the love scene in the claw-footed bathtub.
Probably the most divisive part of the film comes from Tommy’s adventures in deep space, which eventually resolve in him attaining some kind of Buddha state and intervening in the other timelines. It is in the Xibalba sequence that Aronofsky’s drug imagery and scene repetition really come into play, as Tommy has a regimen that includes eating hallucinogenic tree bark and boiling sap to use as tattoo ink. This recalls to me the work of Jodorowsky’s sci-fi films and comics, as does the sumptuous look of Isabella’s court. Scenes could have come right out of The Metabarons, or The Borgias. Aronofsky even allowed a version of The Fountain to be made as a Euro-esque comic by Kent Williams and it’s well worth seeking out.
The Fountain, when it’s not amusing itself with Inquisition torture chambers, Mayan treasure maps, and futuristic drug-trees, is really about something that we all must face in our lives: death. We will someday lose people we love and we ourselves will die leaving people behind; there’s no getting around this. What all of the various versions of Tom, running around on quests trying to keep their Izzis alive just a moment longer, forget is that there is no real replacement for human interaction and love. When Tommy finally reaches Xibalba and apotheosis, he too comes to the same realization as the audience and sets things right.
This film, I guess like most of the other films I’ve talked about here, is definitely not for everyone. Maybe I just recalled it when I was in Mexico on vacation, when I was exploring the ruins of Mayan temples myself, but I do think it’s worth seeking out and experiencing at least once.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.